Bangladesh passes Digital Security Act ignoring concerns it will muffle media

Parliament has passed the Digital Security Act 2018 by dropping the much criticised Section 57 of the ICT Act and some other parts.

Published : 19 Sept 2018, 02:52 PM
Updated : 19 Sept 2018, 09:11 PM

Concerns that it will curb freedom of expression by obstructing journalism, however, remain as some parts of the ICT Act have been kept in the new law.

The MPs passed the act in voice vote when Post, Telecommunication and IT Minister Mustafa Jabbar presented it on Wednesday.

People related to the media have been criticising different sections of the Act since it was drafted, alleging that it will ‘obstruct’ independence of journalism.

After the parliamentary standing committee on the post, telecommunication and IT made its report scrutinising the draft, the Editors’ Council urged parliament not to pass the Act in its current form, because doing so will “gravely affect journalistic freedoms and seriously curtail democracy in Bangladesh”.

The committee, which was asked to scrutinise the draft Bill within four weeks, got two deadline extensions totalling three months.

It finalised the report a day after it got the second extension of one month.

It held discussions with the Editors’ Council, Association of Television Channel Owners and Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists before finalising the report, but the meetings could not allay the concerns.

Journalists and other quarters had been protesting against the Section 57 of the ICT Act of 2006, saying it was being used to curb freedom of the media.

The government had then said the section would be dropped from the new Act and other issues would also be cleared.

Section 57 of the 2006 Act stated if a person deliberately posts or broadcasts something online or on another electronic medium which is false, indecent or causes moral devaluation when read, watched or heard, or something that defames anyone, diminishes law and order, tarnishes the image of a person or the country, offends religious sentiments, or instigate a person or a group will be considered in violation of the law.

Any person violating the section might face jail term between one and 14 years and up to Tk 10 million fines.

Section 61 of the new act has repealed sections 54, 55, 56, 57 and 66 of the ICT Act.

These sections stated penalties for accessing any computer or computer system or computer network without the owner or authority’s permission; changing or destroying the source code or something confidential in any computer, computer programme, computer system or computer network; and hacking to damage computer resources.         

Many issues of the Section 57, however, have been added to different sections of the new Act.

The Editors’ Council objected to different issues in sections 8, 21, 25, 28, 29, 31, 32, and 43 of the new law when it was drafted.

Section 8 of the draft stated that a digital security agency can ask regulator BTRC to block or remove any information in the digital media that poses threat to digital security.

It also said if it appears to the law-enforcing agencies that any content published in the digital media is hampering harmony, financial activities, security, defence, religious values or public order, or creating communal hatred, they can ask the BTRC through the digital security agency to remove or block the content.

The committee did not bring any changes to the proposed section despite objections of the Editors’ Council.

It added a condition on implementing the law that will keep the provisions of the Right to Information Act of 2009 effective for related issues.

The law minister, and post and telecom secretary have been included in the digital security agency, according to the new act.

The maximum punishment for hacking into any computer, digital device or computer system have been reduced to six months in jail or Tk 200,000 fines from one year prison term and Tk 300,000 fines under Section 18 following the committee’s recommendation.

The words - ‘national anthem and flag’ – have been added to Section 21 which proposes punishment for propaganda against the spirit of the Liberation War or independence hero Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

The punishments for offences under the section have also been reduced following the committee’s view. The draft Bill proposed 14 years in jail or Tk 10 million in fines or both for the offences while the maximum jail term has been reduced to 10 years in the act.

Section 25 in the draft criminalised publication of any content in electronic form to threaten, insult, or misguide someone, or soil national image, or spread confusion.

Four parts of this section have been condensed into two, but the content has remained almost unchanged.

The new law stipulates a maximum five-year jail term or up to Tk 500,000 fines or both for collecting, selling or using someone’s identification data like biometric information, photo, date of birth, names of parents, passport number, bank account number, and DNA profile  without legal authority.

It has kept a provision with maximum a seven-year imprisonment or Tk 1 million fines for a repeat offence.

It has reduced jail term for hurting religious sentiments to five years from seven years under Section 28. Fines of Tk 1 million for the offence has been kept unchanged.

Despite objections from journalists, no change has been brought to Section 29 which relates to publication of defamatory information.

The Editors’ Council had also demanded changes to Section 31 on publication of any information that can cause deterioration in law and order, but the government has ignored the call.

Section 32 of the draft drew most flak for concerns that it will hinder investigative reporting on corruption.

Any act of entering illegally into a government, semi-government or autonomous organisation and secretly recording information and data through any electronic device will be considered as ‘spying’ and carries a maximum sentence of 14 years or Tk 2.5 million in fines, or both, according to that section in the draft.

The word ‘spying’ has been dropped from the law following the committee’s recommendation.

Now the section says a person will face the punishment if they commit a crime mentioned in the Official Secrets Act of 1923 by using computer, digital device, computer network, digital network or any other digital media or help someone else commit such crime.

The punishments for offences under the section, however, remain untouched.

The new law empowers the police to search, confiscate or make arrests without a warrant.

It also has a provision that stipulates maximum seven years of imprisonment or Tk 2.5 million fines or both for illegally accessing any significant information structure. 

Minister Jabbar said the law aimed at securing the state and the people’s lives and properties from cyber or digital crimes.